Mike and I took a trip down to the San Rafael Swell this past weekend. We both needed to get out of this rainy valley and enjoy some real sun. We were not at all disappointed. This was the first time I had ever been to the San Rafael Swell, but in some ways it is merely a geologic continuation of Capitol Reef. It rises out of the valley much the same way. The sandstone here is further up the geologic timescale. The Swell exposes layers from the Morrison, Curtis, and Entrada formation whereas the layers found in Waterpocket fold of Capitol Reef expose the geologically deeper layers of Navajo, Kayenta, and Wingate. The difference in stone is very noticeable, especially where the bluish Curtis layer is exposed.
I also noticed a lot more fossilized ripples in these rocks than I tend to see in the Grand Staircase.
Mike has been nursing a running injury so we decided to make this a much less strenuous trip. I still managed a good hike in Crack Canyon. It was a fairly non-strenuous slot canyon with a couple of nice little scrambles that took a little bit of skill to navigate. I am always surprised that it is much harder going down than coming up.
Crack Canyon is one of the many…ahem… cracks in the east side of the San Rafael Swell where the water drains out of the uplifted and folded sandstone layers formed in a battlement against the dry flat wastes of the San Rafael Desert and the Green River valley to the east. It is amazing that over the eons since the Swell formed that water found its way through these cracks at all. I even noted a spot where a three to four foot slot had started to form where the water must obviously flow uphill slightly in order to punch through to the lower canyon. I read somewhere about backchannel flooding in canyon formation, and I think this could have plausibly happened along the eastern Swell buttresses. In wetter times, water flooding into the saturated Green River valley could have gathered in the backchannels and flooded the downriver side of the Swell’s canyons. This combined with water fighting from the inside to get out might explain why I was able to note this slight uphill flow location. Now strong flash floods coming down the canyon can still wash over this obstacle. Before I make any ridiculous claims I should consult a geolgist.
Once out of the Swell proper Crack Canyon enters a meandering state as it crosses through buttes and buttresses of a much drier wasteland. I did not want to spend too much time hiking in this region as the heat of the day was coming up and I wanted to return to the relative cool of the Canyon’s narrow slots. I did notice some very pretty crystaline mineral layers in one of the cliffsides I crossed to shortcut a meander by means of a trail leading to a notch in the top of the butte formed by the turn in the stream.
No trip to this side of the Swell would be complete without a visit to the Goblin Valley. I had been wanting to visit this area for quite some time and it was worth an afternoon of hiking. Upon arrival one is immediately bombarded by hordes of children playing hide-and-seek among the goblins but a short walk brings absolute solitude. Once again, the unofficial rule that most people do not wander more than five hundred yards from their cars in national parks and other protected areas is reinforced by the evidence.
The valley itself is truly amazing. The softer layers of ancient Entrada mud are being slowly washed from between harder formed boulders of sandstone leaving uniquely absurd formations. There are also a few nicely placed hills, making it possible to climb and survey the entire landscape. The Henry Mountains appear on the southern horizon, there is the Swell to the immediate east and a couple of very absurdly placed bluffs in the midst of the wasteland on the way to the Green River. And here in the midst of these things is this valley populated by silent warp-eroded sentinels. I am sure that mine is not the first imagination to be blown by this “drôle de nature” and I am sure that there are other better masters of language who can do more poetic justice to this valley than my baseball-bat-blunt prose.
As I walked among the goblins, I was taken mostly by the process involved in creating such a place. In a cosmic sense this place is completely unlikely. A shallow sea from a hundred million years ago laid down the sandstones, the bottom dropped out just at the edge of the valley and then millions more years of wet and dry cycles eroded the layers down to the forms we see now. And now, human children -whose intelligent existence is even more unlikely – play hide-and-seek among these figures. Odd. Nothing like a desert to move one’s cosmic sensibilities. The valley, like good art, has twisted perception. It changes the viewer’s understanding of what stone actually is and what it does. It should not bent naturally the way a human sculptor bends clay of the same substance. Here in this valley, passive natural forces did on a grand scale what human sculptors could only dream of doing.
And speaking of human craft, on our way out of the Swell we managed to stop in Buckhorn Wash to see the famous rock art. I was disappointed to find out that it is literally on the side of the road. I expected at least a short hike. I was further disappointed to find out how badly it had been vandalized over the course of the last two centuries (for context, that’s less than 10% of the entire life of the paintings.) Apparently, Jim Bridger himself had no love of anything more cultural than his own prowess at scrawling his name across these once-sublime paintings. The before restoration picture shows his name plastered across the art. Such, as they say, is progress. I look forward to returning to the Swell to do a true scavenger hunt for some of its more hidden art.